All almonds originating from California will have to comply with strict new pasteurization regulations, implemented last week by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in response to recent salmonella outbreaks.
With mandatory compliance set for September 1 2007, the new regulations mean that no almonds may be handled or used in processed goods unless they meet the pasteurization requirements.
The ruling is a result of a voluntary 'Action Plan' proposed by the Almond Board of California (ABC). The industry group, a federal marketing order, aims to promote California's almonds, but also funds food safety and quality projects.
According to ABC, the "goal of the Action Plan is to provide assurance that all almonds reaching consumers have undergone a treatment to reduce the potential for pathogen contamination, without compromising the quality and flavor consumers expect".
The group claims that the pasteurization process would result in "no significant" degradation of the sensory and quality characteristics of almonds, such as the flavor, color, texture, or skin integrity.
However, the ruling has resulted in a backlash from handlers and processors, that claim the new production methods are too expensive, and will compromise their business, as well as from consumer groups, that state it is misleading to market pasteurized almonds as 'raw'.
But the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (ARS) said in the final ruling that "in response to the comment that consumers should have a choice to buy raw or processed almonds, and the suggestion that almonds be labeled as non pasteurized, USDA assumes that the commenter means labeling at the consumer level. The Act provides authority for requirements under a marketing order at the handler level, not the consumer level. Thus, no changes have been made to the proposed rule based on this comment".
The agency also said that it has evaluated the impact of this rulemaking on small handlers, and suggests that such handlers need to evaluate their own business situation to determine the merits of investing in treatment equipment or contracting out for treatment.
Under the new food safety program, almonds must be processed to achieve a minimum 4-log reduction in salmonella bacteria. Log reduction describes how much bacterial contamination is reduced by a treatment process. A 4-log reduction decreases bacteria by a factor of 10,000 (4 zeros).
Exemptions include shipments to certain approved manufacturers within the US, Canada or Mexico, or to certain export markets. In this case, all almonds must be labeled 'unpasteurized', to indicate that they require further treatment.
In the past five years, the almond industry has experienced two food safety incidents, in which raw almonds were recalled due to the presence of salmonella. These occurred in 2001 in Canada and in 2004 in Oregon.
In the summer of 2004, the ABC unanimously approved a voluntary action plan that called for treating all almonds to reduce the potential for salmonella. Handlers were encouraged to treat the almonds prior to shipment, or ship the almonds to a manufacturer who agreed to treat the almonds. The board continued to fund research on various technologies that could be used to help reduce the potential for salmonella in almonds.
These developments led to the passing of the final rule last week, despite the fact that contamination in almonds is generally considered rare.
To view the USDA/AMS final rule, click here .
For ABC's sensory and quality evaluation, click here .
For more information from ABC on the action plan and the ruling, click here .